ESL or not? Matters Not

I first heard the term ESL when I joined a mostly-American online writing community three years ago. One day while chatting one of my (American) friends from the board remarked, “Your English is very good for an ESL.” I had to ask her to translate the mysterious abbreviation for me, and only when she told me it was English Second Language, did I understand the full import of her compliment. Subsequently, I received praise for my grasp of English from a lot of board members. As much as I appreciated their kind words, I didn’t let it all get to my head. For, I still stood hapless and flustered when it came to deciphering everyday American-speak.

After spending about a year with this accommodating community, I joined another writing group–this time a British one. Here, I was reminded of my ESL identity once again. This time though, the compliments were more backhanded than those of the American writing board. As a member of a critique group in the new community, I was required to submit a new short story every month and review the ones submitted by other members. On more than one occasion, my stories would get such notes as “I found the sentence structure a bit awkward. I know it’s difficult to tackle that, and given your ESL background, it was a good effort.” I swallowed the remarks since my primary focus was to improve my writing. But now that I can share it with you, let me vent a bit on that perception. No, those views didn’t hurt me. They angered me.

Such a perception made me angry not because I think too highly of my English proficiency. Far from that. As far as I am concerned, learning–especially that related to writing–is a lifelong endeavour. The idea of me being an ESL, and therefore, only the second best ruffled my nerves because of the sympathetic undertone to it. Yes, English is not my first language. So what? Should that make editors take a lenient approach while reading my work? NO! When I am writing in a given language, I should be rated alongside all others who write in that language, regardless of whether they speak that in their daily lives or not.

For the record, I studied British English in school. The legacy of our colonial rulers is still in place as far as India’s education system is concerned. English happens to be the language of instruction in a lot of schools (including mine) here. So I am not a latecomer to the learn-English club. I started scribbling A, B, C as a toddler, just like any American or British would. Therefore, if I am to be credited for a reasonably okay grasp of the language, I should also be the one to take the onus for any slips and slides I make.

At the same time, readers need to be conscious of what to expect from writers of different geographical backgrounds. As an Indian, whose first language isn’t English, I am not likely to use it like an American, British, or Australian (or those whose native tongue is English) would. Just like the language itself, the slang that cultures using English as their first language have made up, are foreign to me. If my Indian characters start speaking like that, my story will end up being a ridiculously phony disaster. You won’t even buy into the characters, would you? Another point that comes to mind is when I write about rural Indians, I am mostly translating their words into English. For, they would never speak in English; most don’t know the language apart from some basic words. All these factor into my writing of this immensely universal language.

Are those points excuses for making weak prose acceptable to the Western audience? Never. More than one non-native, or should I say ESL, writer has proved how much English belongs to the whole world and not just to pockets where people speak it.

Want proof?

1. Amitav Ghosh
2. Joseph Conrad
3. Salman Rushdie
4. Ayn Rand
5. Rohinton Mistry
6. Arundhati Roy
7. Vikram Seth

I am sure there are more. And the world of words is only richer because of them.

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14 thoughts on “ESL or not? Matters Not

  1. When I was in college, I used to work at the ESL writing lab where I would work one on one and sometimes teach classes of ESL students who were at all levels of learning English, to people who were just starting to people like you who have mastered the language. I used to get so jealous of people like you, who could speak two or more languages. When it comes to writing creatively, my ESL students–even the ones who weren’t yet that good in English–always wrote with such a fresh perspective, and they always described things in a really interesting, compelling way. I see the same thing here in how you write.I would never think the fact English is your second language is a problem. It can only be an asset.

  2. If you hadn’t mentioned ESL in the first place, I would have never thought of it. I did see that you are from India (website) but your writing is better than many Americans.Of course, I did read eventually that you started your ABCs as a toddler and that you were taught in British English in school.So, I can understand your frustration with the critique groups.:)

  3. Another name that comes to mind is: Jhumpa Lahiri. Although its debatable whether she herself is ESL or not, but I thought most of her characters spoke a different kind of English altogether.

  4. I agree with September.It would not have occured to me.Your cultural perspective gives your writing charm and freshness.It strikes me that the critic made a presumption: Since English was allegedly your “second language” because of your domile, YOU THEREFORE WERE AWKWARD.Same thing occurs often in other areas of critiquing.If a writer does not announce they have previous publications, their work is expected/assumed to have fatal flaws – there is the presumption of error.

  5. Matt, your kind words overwhelmed me; I am not that good, honestly. I never thought knowing three languages could be an advantage, until American friends like yourself pointed that out to me. I agree with you there. As for the freshness you see in ESL writing; it’s what we see in yours. That is why English is such a wonderful vehicle for cultural exchange. Esther, many thanks for the compliment. It put a wide grin and a slight blush on my face :P. Yoda, Jhumpa Lahiri’s name did come to my mind, but she was born in London and grew up in the U.S. I am not sure if English was a second language for her, in the strict sense of the concept. She did make frequent trips to India, however, and that possibly explains the way some of her characters speak. I really liked her style in “Interpreter of Maladies.”Bernita, isn’t that so true? So often we see how preconceived prejudices can colour judgments. Thanks so much for your appreciation. They mean a lot to this ESL writer. Lol, just joking :).Lotus, Allende is one of my favourite writers! Yes, she writes in Spanish like so many of the remarkable Latin American writers.

  6. Hi Bhas,When I first read Jhumpa Lahiri, I felt she had lived in Britain or had connections with the UK in everyday living without knowing anything about her life, and indeed at the end of the day, she did have early roots and sometimes even this, I’ve noticed amongst people makes an extraordinary difference.You speak beautiful English and having lived in London in the last years, believe me, Bhas, yours is soooooo British…love

  7. Bhaswati, pay no heed to those who criticize. Learn and forge ahead. Those of us who are labeled with ESL often understand the language better and have a clearer understanding than those who are not ESL. You will never make the mistake of saying: “She was laying by me.” or “That boutique is ran by my friend.” Never lay but lie; always, “run, ran, run.” OK, so I got to vent some pet peeves, thanks to you!!When we moved to Colorado from Illinois, my daughter was called in by the Literacy Dept of the Boulder Valley School District for evaluation because…yes, she was considered ESL. I was quite upset because they did not acknowledge nor review her past school records. If they had, they would have known she was reading and comprehending well above grade level. When she was tested, she scored a 5/5 in every section. And, where native English speakers are given a default proficiency level of 90, she scored at least 99. Phooey to ESL. If anything, ESL’s speak better English!

  8. Susan, thanks for the compliment. Coming from a writer as talented as you, it means a lot to me :)Manisha, I hear you. That is outrageous; the prejudiced test through which your child was put. I am so proud of her though. She does sound bright 🙂 My frustration with the said British crit group wasn’t that they pointed out gaps in my writing, but that they linked those shortcomings to my being ESL. Now, that is uncalled for. If my English needs imporovement, it just does. And that has nothing to do with what language I speak in my daily life.

  9. Yes, I certainly understand anger at being patronized.I see proficiency in more than one langauge as a source of strength. It allows one to blend the colors and souls of different constructs. The wedding of the two is greater than either one alone.

  10. Bhaswati, it’s the “law” in Colorado, based on Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” They don’t care what the child’s past records indicate. The language spoken by the evaluators and other personnel in the Literacy Department, to communicate with each other, was Spanish. Interesting, huh?The evaluator, to her credit, was very tolerant of my questions. She explained that in the past they went by what the family said as far as fluency was concerned. But, then they found that the child had problems in later grades when it came to understanding instructional English and there wasn’t much help forthcoming from home as the parents had reached their limit of knowledge. At this point, the teachers usually turned around and blamed the Literacy Dept. for not catching this earlier. The Dept. had enough information to identify these families but it would be akin to profiling so they just test every child that states that they know another language. So, no matter what the records say, as soon as they see another language besides English written on the survey, they call the child in. A lot of bureaucracy and expense to the school district is how I interpret this. They are trying to avoid a situation of prejudice but no matter which way you cut it, it is prejudice. More so, because the native English speakers aren’t put through this even though their grammar and spelling is appalling. And I volunteer in my child’s classroom so I know how the other kids do.I was also annoyed that the form was called a survey and I thought we would just be a statistic. Instead, action was taken on the answers we filled out. I stand warned and in future, I will not write Hindi or Marathi on such forms. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, my time and puts my daughter through unnecessary stress. Yes, she came through with flying colors, but it serves to remind her that she is viewed differently from those who ‘speak English at home’ and serves to sets her apart. This was over 6 months ago. Can you tell I am still upset?!

  11. Benjamin, thanks for dropping by and showing support :)Manisha, I can see why you should be upset. That’s so typical of bureaucracy–plans to make things transparent and easy always end up being the other way round. All said and done, the approach does smack of discrimination. I can see why Indian parents or those from other non-English-speaking countries would avoid mentioning their native langauges in the forms. Sad, really.

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